Iraqi Sunni tribe wages costly battle against IS group

March 27, 2015

DULUIYAH, Iraq (AP) — The consequences of the al-Jabouri tribe’s decision to ally with Iraq’s Shiite-led government against their fellow Sunnis in the Islamic State group are etched on row after row of gravestones in this palm-shaded town by the Tigris River.

As Khamis Daari paces the cemetery he points out the final resting place of his son Ali, killed in December alongside scores of others who battled the IS group. A few plots over lies Yazen al-Abeelah, a playful three-year-old killed when a rocket hit his home. Mahmoud Salama, 80, is said to have battled bravely alongside fighters half his age, only to die in an explosion.

Unclaimed plots may soon be filled. Daari’s other son Omar is preparing to join Sunni tribesmen fighting alongside Iraqi troops and Shiite militiamen in the country’s Sunni heartland. “If he doesn’t fight then he has no future,” Daari said, his face creased in distress and his eyes welling up with tears. “These terrorists are destroying Iraq.”

Sunni tribes played a key role in driving out al-Qaida in Iraq — a precursor to the IS group — and are widely seen as the only force capable of securing the country’s northwest Sunni heartland. But the few Sunni tribes that have stood up to the IS group have paid a heavy price, and anger at the Shiite-led government runs deep in the areas of northern and western Iraq that now make up the extremist group’s self-styled caliphate.

When IS fighters reached Duluiyah in June, some 45 miles (75 kilometers) north of Baghdad, they gave the al-Jabouri an ultimatum: join us or die. Many of Iraq’s Sunnis have chosen the former, however reluctantly, but the al-Jabouri elected to fight. They had learned their lesson years earlier, when al-Qaida in Iraq recruited some of the tribesmen to fight the government and the Americans only to turn on the tribe after suffering losses on the battlefield, killing more than 300 al-Jabouris.

“We suffered a lot from al-Qaida,” said Sheikh Eissa al-Dahour, an al-Jabouri tribesman. “We have no tolerance for this organization.” This time around, the al-Jabouris allied with Iraqi troops and Shiite militiamen against the IS group and drove out the extremists in December. Some 200 al-Jabouris are now taking part in a major offensive in the nearby city of Tikrit, and the government has held them up as an example for other Sunni tribes, hoping to create a non-sectarian national guard.

To do that, the government will have to somehow reverse the centrifugal forces unleashed by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, which toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and handed power to the long-oppressed Shiite majority.

Sunni grievances mounted during the long rule of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was widely seen as pursuing sectarian policies and who responded to protests with a heavy hand. When IS militants swept across Iraq last summer, many Sunnis initially greeted them as liberators and cheered the retreat of the despised security forces.

“The reason so many tribes joined Daesh in the first place is because they saw them as revolutionaries fighting against the government that abandoned them,” said Sheikh Amin Ali Hussein of the al-Khazraji, another government-allied tribe in the nearby town of Samarra, using an Arabic acronym for the group. “The government now has a big chance to make up for all the blood that was shed.”

The government hopes to somehow revive the Sahwa, or Awakening Councils — Sunni tribes and militias who switched sides starting in 2006 and allied with the Americans to drive out al-Qaida. But the U.S. and Iraqi commitment to the Sahwa waned once the threat had passed, an experience many Sunnis fear will be repeated.

Sunnis also fear the brutal consequences of confronting the IS group. In November, the extremists killed more than 200 men, women and children from the Sunni Al Bu Nimr tribe in the western Anbar province, apparently viewing it as a threat. The mass killing, and grisly online pictures of bodies displayed in the streets, led the remnants of the tribe to go into hiding, fearing the government could not protect them.

When the al-Jabouri rebelled, the IS group laid siege to Duluiyah for six months and blew up the only nearby bridge across the Tigris. Many homes were destroyed, and those left standing are still pocked and blackened from the fighting.

But the al-Jabouri say if the government helps them rebuild their community then the tribesmen can help sew the country back together. “The al-Jabouri are trying to make amends with the other tribes that may have supported Daesh in the beginning,” said Col. Azzam Abed, a police officer from the al-Jabouri. “But the government needs to show that it is sincere.”


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